Comparative Literature Program - Course Descriptions


Spring Quarter

Dept Course No and Title Instructor
In The City of God, Saint Augustine recounts the following exchange between Alexander the Great and a pirate he captured. “What gives you the right to disrupt the sea-lanes by force?” asks Alexander. To which the pirate boldly replied, “What gives you the right to disrupt the whole world by force? I use a small ship, so I’m called a thief; you use a great fleet, so you’re called an emperor.” In this class we’ll explore popular depictions of pirates (in movies such as the Pirates of the Caribbean series and literature) and compare these with historical narratives of piracy. We will also, as St. Augustine’s anecdote suggests, inquire into how piracy gets defined and what it might tell us about the dividing line between legality and illegality, relations of force, and the fantasies and practices of opposition to dominant social structures. While our main focus will be on piracy in the Atlantic Ocean in the 17th and 18th centuries, we will also discuss contemporary forms of piracy such as the Somali pirates and internet piracy.
People call movies like Avatar (dir. Cameron) (2009) and the Star Wars movies “epics.” How do these movies mimic the ancient Greek poet Homer’s pre-modern epic, the Odyssey, if they do? And what can we learn about any nation’s interests and concerns today from its engagement with the masterpieces of either its own tradition or with other traditions from a different time and place? How do the world’s literatures converse with one another, in other words? In Comparative Literature 60A, we will read some of the greatest texts of World Literature – from the ancient Greek, Argentine, English, Irish, Nigerian, U.S., and Persian traditions – in dialogue with one another as a way of answering these questions. Texts will include the Persian poet Firdowsi’s 10th century epic, the Shahnameh, and its afterlife in oral recitations in Iranian coffee houses today alongside other re-significations of this “classic” as Iran’s national epic; the ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles’ Antigone (442 b.c.e.) as it is retold in Argentine playwright Griselda Gambaro’s Antígona Furiosa play (1986); Sophocles’ Philoctetes (409 b.c.e.) as it dialogues with Irish playwright Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy (1990) and the U.S. poet Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems” (1974-1976); Euripides’ Bacchae (405 b.c.e.) in conversation with Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka’s The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite (1973); parts of medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1476) with and against selections from the work of contemporary Nigerian-British performance artist, Patience Agbabi; and Shakespeare's Tempest (1611) in conversation with the Martiniquan writer Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest (1969), on the one hand, and with the documentary film, "Shakespeare Behind Bars” about the production of Shakespeare’s play in a U.S. prison in 2005, on the other. These dialogues will help us understand the many ways that the traditions we study can have multiple afterlives across traditions and around the world. THIS COURSE IS ENTIRELY ON LINE (although I will be happy to meet with you in person on campus in my office hours throughout the quarter!).  Quizzes on readings and lecture material, Discussion Board posts on the readings, and short comparative writing assignments.

Comparative Literature 60A is the first quarter of the “World Literature” track in the Comp. Lit. major, but the course is open to all students. It fulfills the GE IV and VIII campuswide requirement.
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This is the capstone seminar for Comparative Literature majors and, as such, is a class in which students are expected to engage in a research project of their own and produce a final paper of 15 pages. The overarching theme I’ve proposed is the question of the environment and the limits of representation and will take off from a set of problematics and questions identified by Amitav Ghosh’s recently published The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016). For the first 6-7 weeks we will read a set of key texts that will expand and illuminate these questions as well as analyze together a few case studies, but by the last month of the class we will shift to working on your own independent research projects. Of central interest in the class will be the question of what a discipline like Comparative Literature may contribute to larger discussions on the environment and climate change.